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With latest vote, force now strong behind Lucas Museum

With Latest Vote, Force Now Strong Behind Lucas Museum

by JOHN GREGERSON | Oct 29, 2015

A slimmer, trimmer Jabba the Hutt took a significant step toward reality this week, when the Chicago City Council overwhelmingly approved a revised plan for the proposed $400-million Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Its unusual design has earned unflattering comparisons to the lumpy, dumpy Star Wars character created by movie mogul George Lucas, the man who would privately fund the facility now planned for the shores of Lake Michigan, just south of Soldier Field.

Pre-diet: Jabba the Hutt in 1983.

Pre-diet: Jabba the Hutt in 1983.

Project revisions, unveiled in September, scaled the museum back from 400,000 to 300,000 sq ft, while adding additional park space on surrounding land, making the scheme more palatable to critics. However, Lucas Museum President Don Bacigalupi, former head of the Bentonville, AR-based Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, indicated the revisions weren't intended to appease critics, but instead resulted from evolving plans for the facility's interiors.

MAD hatter: China's Yansong has revised and downsized his design, backed by locals VOA, Studio Gang, and SCAPE.

MAD hatter: China's Yansong has revised and downsized his design, backed by locals VOA, Studio Gang, and SCAPE.

Criticism and controversy have dogged the 17-acre project since August 2014, when Lucas announced plans to locate it on public lakefront land. Near-hysteria erupted three months later, when the filmmaker unveiled the windowless design by Ma Yansong, founder of Beijing-based MAD Architects. A trio of Chicago-based firms round out the design team. VOA is the project’s architect of record while Studio Gang Architects and SCAPE Landscape Architecture are designing the landscape.

Some compared the scheme to a lunar landscape, others to J.R.R. Tolkien's vision of the Lonely Mountain in The Lord of the Rings. For his part, Ma indicated the design simply fulfilled its developer's desire for “a 21st-century museum that can inspire people.” Lucas called it “organic architecture.”

Chicago-based architecture critic Blair Kamin was unimpressed. He assailed the design for its lack of windows, which would deprive visitors of lake views. He also took issue with the building's massing, which he described as a “lumpy blob” that invited comparisons to piles of road salt, nuclear power plants and, yes, the slimy Star Wars character who first oozed onto the big screen in Return of the Jedi.

Though he didn't endorse the revised plan, Kamin conceded that, “with 25% less building mass and a footprint that's been reduced by 40%, the museum no longer sprawls over the shoreline like an out-of-control octopus.” He also lauded the scheme for introducing at least some windows. But Kamin still thinks that, as planned, the project could "compromise" Chicago's shoreline.

Greener bay: Stadium parking lot (left) would give way to museum and considerable green space. The site also lies just north and east of the sprawling McCormick Place Convention Center complex. So, where will museum-goers park?

Greener bay: Stadium parking lot (left) would give way to museum and considerable green space. The site also lies just north and east of the sprawling McCormick Place Convention Center complex. So, where will museum-goers park?

Council approval may – or may not -- remove the last significant obstacle to the facility, which would join other popular attractions on Chicago's nearby Museum Campus. Earlier this month, the Chicago Plan Commission approved a 99-year, $10-lease (not a typo) for the parcel south of Soldier Field, home to the NFL Bears. However, as recently as last week, the Council had agreed to postpone its vote to address a last-minute complaint by the team that the new museum would supplant prime tail-gating space. The two parties subsequently met and reached agreement, paving the way for the Council vote.

Return of the lawsuit

One last battle looms, however, since the Chicago conservation group Friends of the Park has yet to have its day in court. Last November, it filed a federal lawsuit against the project, alleging that it violates the public trust doctrine, which entrusts the State of Illinois with all formerly submerged lake bed land, including the proposed museum site. The plaintiffs also argue that giving Lucas 17 acres of public land clearly violates a longstanding ordinance to protect public property from private development.

In a September hearing, U.S. District Judge John Darrah indicated that the new ground lease agreement meant, “in my judgment, you don't have a viable complaint,” he said. “You don't have anything filed challenging this. It appears the basis for your complaint as presented by you has been superseded.”

That hearing also introduced plans for the scaled-back building and expanded green space. Rather than dismiss the suit outright, though, Darrah instructed Friends of the Park to modify its complaint and return. He then set a new court date for Nov. 10. 

Assuming it wins its day in court, the Lucas Museum could break ground as early as next spring.

Public-private conflict? A lawsuit alleges the city and state have violated the public trust with a sweet private deal. 

Public-private conflict? A lawsuit alleges the city and state have violated the public trust with a sweet private deal. 

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